I recently attended a talk at BTSR as part of the seminary’s Life on the Vine series given by Rev. Dr. Amy Butler, the Senior Pastor of the historic Riverside Church in NYC. Her presentation was entitled “Reclaiming the Neighborhood Church,” but the discussion was much broader and all-encompassing.

She began with the oft-repeated question, “Is the church dying?”

Her response was that yes, the institutional church as we know it is in decline (which is not the same thing), but people still need their deep questions answered and they still need community, so the church need not become irrelevant.

She quoted Phyllis Tickle, who suggested that about every 500 years the church goes through a reformation (note: 2017 marks 500 years since the last major reformation, when in 1517 Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg). These reforms are generally good movements for the church, reexamining faith and practice with new eyes, and offering fresh ways for Christians to live out their discipleship.

But change is hard.

So what, then, should churches be doing to remain relevant, offering that community and space for faith-based questioning? Is there anything to be done differently and still remain faithful to centuries of Christian witness?

Here are a few suggestions she had for us (in my paraphrase):

  1. When the going gets tough, the tough get going. When people are desperate, that is when change is most simple. Think about the declining church of only a couple dozen members deciding whether to shutter its doors. That church is ready for change. But churches with long histories and large endowments still hang on to a good number of members (though shrinking) – this is when the process is a little more painful, requiring a little more patience and a lot more faith.
  1. Push back against traditional measures of success. The number of attendees at any given program or event (or even worship!) matters much less than how deeply people are being engaged by the church – whether small group or corporate worship. Quit counting beans, and look at the quality of the faith journey community experience happening among those attending regularly and those being reached outside the doors of the church.
  1. Speaking of the doors – Open them, and walk out. Many churches have lovely land and buildings that remain empty most of the week. And even those who do have a busy building often do not have their own people filling the building (think of how many outside groups borrow facilities to help many churches meet their budgets). People are no longer wandering into church buildings much. We need to be engaging the community in creative new ways, partnering with outside groups doing the good work of the Kingdom, even if not initiated by our church or our denomination. Who is doing it well, and how can we help them serve? Take the work of the church to others, and whether anyone ever darkens the doors of the church building, we will have succeeded in following Jesus and sharing the Good News.
  1. Seek diversity. Hire leaders and engage communities that reflect the beautiful, multi-colored tapestry of God’s work. Is the church homogeneous? Does it only have white and wealthy members, only blue-collar members, or is it largely older or younger members – or is otherwise not diversified? How do we reach those of other economic statuses in our midst? Or different races? Or different ages?
  1. Innovation – the church is always behind other institutions in being innovative. Instead of lagging so far behind, perhaps we can look to the nonprofits and business seeking new ways of doing work to find inspiration for experimentation in innovative practices that could improve our outreach in the community. Being church does not have to mean being stuck in a rut of the same things with the same resources every year; in fact, if we keep our eyes and ears open, we might just learn something from other groups who naturally think outside the box for business and nonprofit work – leading to increased Kingdom work in the community around us, and to the ends of the earth.
  1. Say something that matters. Quit hiding from the justice issues in the news for fear of disagreement. No, not everyone in the pew will agree completely on how to handle situations in politics and social issues, but it is imperative that we not sweep these under the rug in favor of a hollow echo-chamber that means very little to the outside world. Younger generations especially are not looking for perfect answers, but for authentic faith that touches the whole of their lives – not a place to hide from the issues bombarding them in the news. As Amy put it, “If you’re not saying something that matters from the pulpit, just sit down.” (That’ll preach).

We as Christians have long sought to build institutions to perpetuate ritual, and this has long sustained the church through many centuries. But as we enter what could be another major reformation (or at least a mini-reformation in our own congregation as we enter a new season of pastoral leadership), we must realize that the Spirit of God is not present in this world simply to sustain ritual.

The Spirit of God calls us to take risks for the sake of the Kingdom. These risks mean being willing to try things and fail – even sometimes failing very fast, knowing that as we seek to find God, we must remain open and available to change and morph as God calls us. We are no longer sustaining the consumer-driven coffee house of the 1990s experiments with church. Today’s generations are calling for a “nimble, permission-giving expression of the community of Christ.”

To be this witness in the world, we must be innovative, prophetic, and edgy. We must be bold, hire cutting-edge leadership, and take risks to remain relevant. Otherwise, as Amy said it, “If you do not usher in change, you will become the funeral director for your congregation.”